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Russia goes to the polls

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MOSCOW, Dec. 12 (JTA) — The last time Russians went to the polls to elect a new Parliament and president in 1995 and 1996, respectively, Russia’s Jews overwhelmingly supported incumbent President Boris Yeltsin and his party in what was seen as a struggle to prevent the return of communism.

This time around, the threat of a Communist takeover and an ensuing repression is generally thought to be unlikely.

With the approach of the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections for the 450 seats in the Duma — widely considered to be a harbinger of June’s scheduled presidential elections — Russia’s roughly half-million Jews don’t appear to be supporting the status quo.

Instead, the Jewish vote is split among centrist and liberal parties vowing change.

In addition, Jews are playing a prominent role in these elections — both as candidates and as big businessmen who wield tremendous influence on national politics, especially as the owners of national media channels that have engaged in slanted reporting that exceeds typical American mud-slinging.

This situation has led to something of a backlash, bringing to the surface the anti-Semitism that is always only partially submerged in Russia.

Indeed, the famous Russian author and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn recently expressed a fear of a “Jewish conspiracy” against Russia when, in a TV interview, he compared today’s situation to the one in the years preceding the 1917 Russian Revolution, when bankers and other “shady people” with Jewish names were “plotting from behind the scenes.”

According to analysts, a sizeable part of the Jewish vote will go to the Fatherland — All Russia bloc, which is running second in the nationwide opinion polls with 14 percent, right behind the Communists, who are earning roughly 27 percent of the vote in polls.

This bloc, known as OVR, is headed by Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister who is widely believed to have Jewish roots, and by Moscow’s powerful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Both men are contending for the Russian presidency.

Luzhkov, who has always been extremely friendly with the Jewish community, attends almost all high-profile Jewish gatherings, including the opening of new synagogues. Earlier this year, he also banned Russia’s leading neo-Nazi group from meeting in Moscow.

Some Jewish voters are also expected to support the Yabloko bloc, which is running third in the opinion polls with 9 to 10 percent. Yabloko is headed by the well-known liberal economist and presidential contender Grigory Yavlinsky, who is supported by Russian intellectuals and who himself has Jewish roots.

Yakov Zukerman, a Jewish leader in St. Petersburg, which has the second largest Jewish community, believes the majority of Jews there will vote for Yabloko.

Rabbi Adolph Shayevich, Russia’s chief rabbi said, “I think in Moscow Jewish voices will be divided 50- 50 between Yabloko” and Primakov’s party, while in St. Petersburg and in other areas, Yabloko will earn a majority of the Jewish vote.

Many young Jews, meanwhile, will vote for the Union of Right Forces, according to opinion polls among students. This bloc, known as SPS, is running fifth or sixth in the polls and is not certain to gain the 5 percent vote needed to earn representation in the Duma.

This bloc, called “the party of young reformers,” is headed by former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, the former first deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, and is backed by the former government’s economics chief, Anatoly Chubais, all of whom have Jewish roots.

In a country with nearly 150 million voters, Jewish ballots, split between different blocs, apparently will not significantly affect the results of the election, and therefore the politicians here are not courting the Jewish community vigorously.

But they are courting Jewish money.

Says Roman Spector, vice president of the Jewish umbrella Va’ad Federation: “The Jewish community in Russia has no organized political representation. The main figures of today’s Jewish political life are people with big money.”

This is most evident in the mass media, where Jews own some prominent electronic outlets. Indeed, these Jewish-owned outlets in some ways substitute for direct representation in the Parliament, where Jewish singer and businessman Yosef Kobzon, who is running for the new Duma in a Siberian district, has been the only Jewish representative to speak out on Jewish issues.

Of course in every country parties seek to sway the sentiments of the electorate through TV, but in Russia, the political forces themselves control the national channels.

Two of the three national channels that are openly manipulating public opinion and waging a fierce battle during the election season are Jewish-owned or Jewish-controlled.

The ORT channel, which reaches 99 percent of Russian households, is controlled by two controversial media and business tycoons with Jewish roots — Boris Berezovsky and his close ally, the oil magnate Roman Abramovitch, both of whom are running for Parliament in the provinces.

Both Berezovsky and Abramovitch are widely known to be members of the Kremlin’s inner circle who have close ties with Yeltsin’s politically active daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and, therefore, direct access to the president.

Allied with this group is the Jewish aluminum magnate Lev Chernoy, who recently has been active in buying minor TV channels and newspapers.

Recently ORT has been fiercely attacking the leaders of Fatherland-All Russia bloc, Primakov and Luzhkov and the owners of the NTV channel.

NTV, another nationwide channel, is owned by Vladimir Goussinsky, a Jewish media tycoon who is active in the Jewish community and president of the umbrella group, the Russian Jewish Congress.

Goussinsky has close ties with Luzhkov and his channel is seen as supporting both the Moscow mayor and Primakov.

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